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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Prosecutors Calling for Lengthy Sentence for Silk Road Founder

Federal prosecutors are attempting to make an example of Ross Ulbricht, the founder of the black market online marketplace the Silk Road - calling for a lengthy prison sentence, The New York Times reports. In February, Ulbricht was found guilty on seven counts; four of the charges can carry life sentences.

For three years, between 2011 and 2013, more than 1.5 million transactions were made, with more than 13,000 offerings of illegal drugs being available for purchase when the Silk Road was shut down, according to the report. It is estimated that the marketplace generated more than $213 million in BitCoins - an untraceable digital currency. Ulbricht has been called a digital drug kingpin by the Federal District Court. Ulbricht operated an “online black market of unprecedented scope,” leading to addiction and fatal drug overdoses.

The United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, said Ulbricht’s charges should carry a sentence that is “substantially above the mandatory minimum” of 20 years.

“Ulbricht bears responsibility for the overdoses, addictions and other foreseeable repercussions of the illegal drugs sold on Silk Road,” Bharara’s office wrote. “It does not matter that he did not personally handle those drugs; neither would a traditional kingpin.”

In a personal letter to the judge, Ulbricht claimed that he did not create the Silk Road for financial gain but because he believed “people should have the right to buy and sell whatever they wanted so long as they weren’t hurting anyone else.” Adding that the website “turned out to be a very naïve and costly idea that I deeply regret.”

Ulbricht also pleaded for leniency:

“I’ve had my youth, and I know you must take away my middle years, but please leave me my old age,” he said. “Please leave a small light at the end of the tunnel, an excuse to stay healthy, an excuse to dream of better days ahead and a chance to redeem myself in the free world before I meet my maker.”

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Half of States Show Decline in Smoking

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted a study that found a significant decline of smoking in about half of states between 2011 and 2013, HealthDay reports. However, there was little change found in the rate of smokeless tobacco use.

While the previously stated finding is promising, the report indicated some areas of concern. The CDC found only a small change in the rate of people who used both cigarettes and smokeless tobacco; in fact, some states showed an increase of concurrent use of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco. The CDC noted that adults using more than one tobacco product have higher levels of nicotine dependence - making them less likely to want to quit.

“From 2011 to 2013 although we’ve seen some progress for cigarette smoking overall, there hasn’t been a significant change in cigarette smoking or smokeless tobacco use across many states,” the CDC’s Brian King told HealthDay. “What is most concerning is the preponderance of dual use—people using multiple tobacco products.”

The CDC found that 26 states showed a decrease in smoking rates during the study period, but, only Ohio and Tennessee showed a decline in smokeless tobacco use, according to the article. Between 2011 and 2013, four states showed that the use of smokeless tobacco increased:
  • Louisiana
  • Montana
  • South Carolina
  • West Virginia
During the same time period, the CDC found that the combined use of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco increased in:
  • Delaware
  • Idaho
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • West Virginia
In 2013, adult smoking decreased across the country to 19 percent, from 21 percent in 2011, the article reports. The rate of smoking was highest in West Virginia (27 percent) and lowest in Utah (10 percent). Smokeless tobacco use was also highest in West Virginia (9 percent) and lowest in Massachusetts (1.5 percent).

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Using Naltrexone to Treat Methamphetamine Addiction

New research suggest that using the drug Naltrexone, typically used to treat alcoholism, may also be effective for treating methamphetamine addiction, UPI reports. A new study showed that methamphetamine-addicted patients' who were given Naltrexone showed a decreased desire for the drug and experienced a decrease in pleasure when using meth.

Methamphetamine addiction is often associated with high recidivism rates. Many meth users who seek treatment often return to the drug. Finding new ways to mitigate relapse could prove useful in the future of methamphetamine treatment.

At the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), researchers conducted a small study which included 22 men and eight women who used methamphetamine an average of three or four times a week, according to the article. The participants were given either Naltrexone, or a placebo, four out of the five-days they were in the hospital. The researchers then repeated the process ten days later, but they reversed who received the Naltrexone or the placebo.

On the last day of each five-day stay in the hospital the participants were given a dose of methamphetamine. They were then asked to report how they felt, and whether or not they wanted another dose. The participants that received the Naltrexone reported a diminished desire for the drug and said they enjoyed it less.

“The results were about as good as you could hope for,” researcher Lara Ray said in a news release.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is currently funding larger clinical trials of Naltrexone as a treatment for methamphetamine addiction.

The findings were published in Neuropsychopharmacology.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Converting Sugar Into Morphine

The opium poppy, (Papaver somniferum), has long been the source of the most effective pain medication in the world. From the poppy’s seed pod farmers extract opium milk which can be synthesized into morphine, the base ingredient of heroin, as well as the drugs doctors prescribe around the world for moderate to severe pain relief. Over the last seven years, scientists have been working on the formula to create morphine without the opium poppy, The New York Times reports.

Researchers just discovered the last step for brewing heroin’s raw ingredient in genetically modified yeast. Naturally, this achievement raises many concerns about the new found ability of drug companies, as well as drug traffickers, to convert sugar into a drug that has crippled many parts of the world.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), according to a spokesman, “does not perceive an imminent threat” because no modified yeast strain is commonly available yet, the article reports. However, Kenneth A. Oye, a professor of engineering and political science at M.I.T., argues that bioengineered yeast strains should be stored in secure labs. If drug cartels are able to gain access to the opioid producing yeast strain the consequences could be great.

“By providing a simpler — and more manipulable — means of producing opiates, the yeast research could ultimately lead to cheaper, less addictive, safer and more-effective analgesics,” Oye wrote in a commentary. “And in generating a drug source that is self-replicating and easy to grow, conceal and distribute, the work could also transform the illicit opiate marketplace to decentralized, localized production. In so doing, it could dramatically increase people’s access to opiates.”

“All told, decentralized and localized production would almost certainly reduce the cost and increase the availability of illegal opiates — substantially worsening a worldwide problem,” Oye points out.

The new finding was published in Nature Chemical Biology.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

FDA Denies Label Change for Smokeless Tobacco

Smokeless tobacco, despite the contention of tobacco companies, is not a safer alternative to cigarettes. Tobacco products that are chewed, dipped, or snorted carry with them the potential for other forms of disease, such as mouth cancer, gum disease and tooth loss. Despite the aforementioned health problems associated with smokeless tobacco, two subsidiaries of the tobacco industry petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to alter smokeless tobacco warning labels to indicate they are less risky than traditional cigarettes.

This week, the FDA denied the request by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and American Snuff Co. LLC to change the warning label, the Winston-Salem Journal reports. The FDA said it denied the petition “after thoroughly reviewing the available scientific evidence and public comments. The agency determined there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate that a change in the warnings would promote greater public understanding of the risks associated with the use of smokeless tobacco products.”

In 2011, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and American Snuff Co. LLC filed what is known as a citizen petition. They requested that the FDA change one of the four warning statements used on a rotating basis, according to the article. After the FDA denied the request the Reynolds subsidiaries said they will “continue to engage in regulatory discussions, in the belief that open lines of communications are the most effective approach to establish a science-based regulatory framework for the tobacco industry.”

If the decision were passed, then labels would have said:

“Warning: No tobacco product is safe, but this product presents substantially lower risks to health than cigarettes.”


“No tobacco product is safe; however, exclusive use of smokeless tobacco products presents substantially less risk to health than cigarettes.”

When it comes to public safety, there should never be labels that reflect which is the lesser of two evils - especially when the products are manufactured by the same companies. Science has sufficiently proven that all tobacco products carry significant health risks, saying one product is healthier than the other, sends the wrong message to teenagers and young adults.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Weekend Drug Use Often Becomes Weekday Use

After five days in a row of the 9 to 5, many people spend their weekends partying with drugs and alcohol; these people are often referred to as “weekend warriors.” While this practice may seem relatively benign, there is the potential for increased drug use. In fact, new research suggests that people, who use drugs only on the weekends initially, often start using drugs throughout the week, The Los Angeles Times reports.

Researchers at Boston University studied 483 primary care patients who admitted to using drugs in the past month. 89 percent of the patients admitted to using drugs on weekdays and weekends. As for the 11 percent who reported only using drugs on the weekend, when surveyed six months later, more than half of them (54 percent) admitted they used drugs during the week, according to the report.

"The study shows us that patterns change," said lead author Judith Bernstein, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University School of Public Health. "Only 19% of people who originally said 'I use on weekends' still used only on weekends."

The researchers point out that the patients analyzed were seeing their primary care physician for regular care; they were not seeking treatment for a substance use disorder

“These findings suggest caution in accepting recreational drug use as reassuring, and the importance of following patients in whom drug use is identified,” the researchers wrote.

“When I was working in clinical care I would have patients say, ‘I just use drugs on the weekend’ or ‘I’m just a recreational user’ as if that doesn’t matter so much,” Bernstein said. “I think clinicians need to understand a little more than perhaps they do now on how these patterns change over time.”

The findings were published in Annals of Family Medicine.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Link Between Heroin and Prescription Opioids

While it may seem apparent that the heroin scourge in America is directly linked to the prescription opioid epidemic, little research is available which ties the two together. The prescription drug epidemic resulted from rampant over prescribing and little oversight; for nearly twenty years it was cheap and easy for people to go to multiple doctors for highly addictive narcotics, such as OxyContin (oxycodone) and Vicodin (hydrocodone).

Government crackdowns, while on the surface, appeared to combat the problem with the closures of pill mills and prescription drug monitoring programs. In reality, little progress was made in addressing the underlying problem of addiction in America. Merely cutting off the source only forces an addict to find an alternative channel. In fact, from 2008 to 2011, in the years when serious government efforts began, there was a 75 percent increase in heroin use among Caucasians who abused prescription painkillers, HealthDay reports.

Researchers from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health found that among almost everyone who used prescription opioids frequently had an increased risk of ever injecting heroin, as well as abusing or being dependent on heroin. The findings come from analyzing data of 67,500 people who fielded questions about their heroin use.

“The noteworthy increase in the annual rate of heroin abuse or dependence among non-Hispanic whites parallels the significant increase in nonmedical opioid use during the last decade and the growing number of heroin overdose deaths described for this race and ethnic group in recent years,” said lead researcher Silvia Martins, MD, PhD.

“Overall, our results suggest a connection between opioid and heroin use and heroin-related adverse outcomes at the population level, implying that frequent nonmedical users of prescription opioids, regardless of race or ethnicity, should be the focus of public health efforts to prevent and mitigate the harms of heroin use.”

The findings were published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force

The use of e-cigarettes has become quite common among teenagers, young adults and older Americans. In a short period of time the trendy devices became a multi-billion dollar industry; thanks, in part, to minimal legislation. While there has been limited research conducted on the efficacy of e-cigarettes for smoking cessation, many people have reported dramatically cutting back on traditional cigarettes - with some managing to quit cigarettes completely.

A task force, comprised of a ‘government-convened’ group of experts, found that there is little evidence to support e-cigarettes as a viable smoking cessation method, Time reports. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force was developed to probe the various studies on smoking cessation products, they suggest that smokers attempting to quit should instead turn to smoking cessation drugs like varenicline, behavior modification programs or a combination of both.

The task force was unable to determine if e-cigarettes were an effective resource for quitting because the research available is limited, according to the article. However, the findings do not mean that the vapor devices may not work for some people. There is a plethora of evidence that supports the use of smoking cessation drugs and behavioral therapy, but everyone is different - what works for one person may not work for another.

“We have an embarrassment of riches in terms of a menu of things to offer patients who want to quit smoking,” says Dr. Francisco Garcia, director and chief medical officer of the Pima County Health Department in Arizona and member of the task force. “But every individual is different; some might respond better to behavioral therapy, some might respond better to varenicline, some might feel nicotine replacement is important to bridge them away from tobacco use.”

One population the task force looked at was expectant mothers, which experts will argue have an imperative need to quit. While drugs, such as varenicline, may be effective, there is little research on how smoking cessation drugs will affect the fetus, the article reports. The task force suggests that future mothers rely on behavioral strategies for quitting.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Cocaine Users Altered Brain Function

The use of any mind altering substance has an impact on the brain. Understanding how certain drugs affect the brain may help researchers develop more effective treatments and drugs that may reduce the potential for relapse. A new study has found that the brain function of cocaine addicts is different from non-users, and is linked to highly impulsive behavior, Science Daily reports.

A joint study, conducted by researchers at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and Virginia Commonwealth University, who used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) determined the connections and direction of information flow between brain regions in both cocaine and non-cocaine users. They found that the brains of cocaine users differed from non-users regarding the strength of communication between key brain structures.

Currently, there are no FDA approved medications for the treatment of cocaine addiction, which affects an estimated 800,000 people in the U.S., according to the article. Disregarding negative consequences, cocaine addicts are often highly impulsive and prone to act rashly, which often leads to relapse among those attempting to recover from the disease. Finding ways to diminish impulsivity may lead to better success rates as the result of relapse prevention medications.

"These findings suggest that, while some cortical brain regions show altered activity in cocaine users, other regions may compensate for cocaine-associated deficits in function," said UTMB lead author Kathryn A. Cunningham, Chauncey Leake Distinguished Professor of Pharmacology and Director of the Center for Addiction Research. "Targeting altered brain connections in cocaine use disorder for therapeutic development is a fresh idea, offering a whole new arena for research and the potential to promote abstinence and prevent relapse in these vulnerable individuals."

The findings were published in NeuroImage: Clinical.

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